Santa Fe has added a new $2 million "emergency disaster relief fund" to its CONNECT program to provide one-time cash payments to residents who've suffered the greatest financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Monday, the city announced it has signed a contract with the national Families Independence Initiative to the organization's "UpTogether" platform to deposit funds directly into qualified applicants' bank accounts. Officials say they have partnered with local groups Somos Un Pueblo Unido and Chainbreaker Collective to help identify people in need.

"There are many families in Santa Fe who have been surviving on next to nothing since summer," says city Director of Community Services Kyra Ochoa. "This money is intended to go to the people that have been scraping it together somehow, especially people with children."

The new fund will distribute one-time payments of $750 to workers with children who did not receive a stimulus check from the federal government or unemployment benefits earlier this year, and to people who did not receive unemployment benefits or sick leave while their workplace was shut down temporarily in response to the pandemic.

The fund also includes money for people facing housing insecurity because of the virus. People who can't pay their rent and are at risk of eviction because of the financial impacts of the pandemic can apply to receive $3,000 in rental assistance.

Chainbreaker Collective and Somos Un Pueblo Unido will host a bilingual Facebook Live forum with the city on Monday at 5:30 pm to discuss who is eligible and how to apply.

Many people were ineligible for previous relief because they are undocumented, have undocumented family members, or were working under the table. Some might be cautious of asking for government help for fear of jeopardizing their citizenship applications or drawing attention to themselves, but Ochoa says these fears are unfounded.

"We just want everyone to know—it's safe to use the CONNECT program," Ochoa says. "The City of Santa Fe has one of the strongest sanctuary cities in the country and applicants' information will always remain secure."

So far, the city has allocated $1.6 million of the $17.5 million in CARES Act funding from the state to the contract with FII. Ochoa says the city is currently in the process of adding $400,000 to the fund. She says the city could add even more funds to the pot in coming weeks as the it tries to spend all of its CARES Act money before the end of the year.

All CARES Act funds must be used by the end of the year deadline or they will be transferred back to the state. So far, there's little information about the bulk of the city's plans, with about $2 million allocated for the purchase of a hotel that would be used for housing and other contracts for security on the Plaza and homeless shelters.

The city began taking applications for the new CONNECT fund on Monday—the same day that the new stay-at-home order issued by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham went into effect. Non-essential businesses are shutting down for the second time since the pandemic started in the spring, and restaurants are no longer allowed to serve sit-down dining.

Yet, Ochoa says this timing is merely a coincidence, and that a proposal to create a flexible fund for direct assistance when it became apparent that not everyone would be eligible for federal relief.

The fund is designed to provide retroactive assistance to people who did not get any government help during the first wave of the pandemic. People impacted by the current shutdown may not be eligible.

The Family Independence Initiative has helped other cities including Austin, San Antonio, and Chicago to equitably distribute CARES act funds directly to people in need, and Ochoa says the city chose FII because they know how to get the work done effectively and fast.

It might seem like a strange idea to hand out cash directly to individuals and families without any oversight on how they spend it, but Ochoa says it's actually proven to be one of the most effective ways to help people get back on their feet.

"There's a traditional thought that people have to prove their need," she says, "but what we've found is that if people ask for help they need it more often than not, because it's very hard to ask for help. And our experience is backed up by research—studies have shown that it's very rare for people to 'game the system' in these programs."

The people who receive the funds will also not be left to fend completely by themselves. Once they are part of the CONNECT network, it is much easier for program "navigators" to help them find all sorts of other resources and services for things such as childcare and healthcare.

While member organizations previously had access to "flexible" CONNECT funds to help the people they served pay for things such as a late phone bill or a week of food, the Family Independence Initiative platform allows the city to deliver the funds directly to applicants' bank accounts.

This direct transfer is what sets the new emergency fund apart from the work that the CONNECT program has been doing for months.

CONNECT is a partnership between the City of Santa Fe and Santa Fe County designed to make it easier for people to access a network of services including clinics, healthcare providers, social workers, and homeless shelters.

People can apply for help through CONNECT at their the city or the county website by simply entering their name, contact information, and the problem they are facing, and a navigator will then reach out to help them find the most appropriate services among those offered by the program's member organizations. The program also allows service providers a secure platform to easily share information about a client with the client's other care providers in the network.

In the spring the city used CONNECT funds to set up the emergency shelter at the Midtown Campus.